The ABC’s of Great Britain
I was fortunate to be part of the traveling party of 18 members and friends from St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling that spent nearly a fortnight in the United Kingdom. Our tour began in London and took us to a number of cities and villages in southwestern England. We toured castles, palaces, cathedrals, abbeys, village churches and stately homes; admired gorgeous gardens and parks and spent time at the seaside.
For this travelogue, I will concentrate on some of the lesser known attractions, or what I’ve dubbed the ABCs of Great Britain: Arundel, Avebury, Beaulieu, Brighton, Bath and the Cotswolds.
Arundel Castle, overlooking the River Arun in West Sussex, is the home of the 18th Duke of Norfolk, whose family has lived there since the late 11th century. The main castle is open for tours, along with the parish church and Fitzalan Chapel, the castle keep and several elaborate gardens. Scenes from the PBS series, “Wolf Hall,” were shot in the castle’s Baron’s Hall, where a wedding reception was held last year for the duke’s heir.
The last stop on our tour was Avebury, a Wiltshire village where many Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments remain standing in fields. The World Heritage Site contains the largest stone circle in the world. Unlike Stonehenge — where public access is restricted tightly — visitors can touch and walk among the stones of Avebury.
The village also is home to Avebury Manor, which has beautiful gardens and a 16th-century stately home that was furnished for the BBC series, “The Manor Reborn.” Each room in the house is decorated in a different time period, from the Tudor era to the 1930s.
Beaulieu, a country estate in Hampshire and the family home of the Montagu family since 1538, is open for tours of the Palace House, the ruins of a Cistercian monastery, the parish church, exquisite gardens and the National Motor Museum containing 300 vehicles.
Beaulieu Abbey, also known as the Abbey of the Kings, was founded by King John in 1204. The history of the abbey is depicted in a series of wall hangings created by Lady Belinda Montagu and displayed in the Domus, one of the abbey’s few remaining buildings.
The Palace House includes a portrait gallery, a large dining hall, upper and lower drawing rooms, kitchen and pantry, a library, a private dining room, bedrooms and a modern art gallery. Reminiscent of the downstairs quarters depicted in “Downton Abbey,” a kitchen wall holds a large wooden panel with bells that were rung to summon servants.
One of Beaulieu’s gardens contains several whimsical topiaries — shrubs shaped and trimmed to resemble animal figures — including a tableau re-creating the tea party from “Alice in Wonderland.”
The National Motor Museum, opened in 1972, honors Baron John Montagu, who was a motoring pioneer. Complementing the museum is the World of Top Gear, offering a filmed presentation, a “Top Gear” simulator and test track challenge.
Brighton — a lively resort town in East Sussex where we spent a day and a night — is situated along the English Channel, with scenic seaside sights: white cliffs, a long sandy beach, a pier with amusement venues and food stands, and a modern tower with an enclosed soaring, rotating observation car.
One of Brighton’s gems is the Royal Pavilion, an elaborate, bizarre-looking palace built for the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV), a few blocks from the seaside.
The Royal Pavilion’s architecture and decor feature an amazing array of Indian and Chinese elements. The massive building’s towers and roof line mimic ornate structures found in India, while the palace’s interior is decorated in reds and golds, with dragons and serpents adorning wall coverings.
The ultra-long, wide dining table in the Royal Pavilion’s opulent Banqueting Hall is set for a grand banquet, recalling the splendor of the king’s residency. The large kitchen includes several work stations. A display board lists a multitude of delicacies that were prepared for feasts. The bountiful dinner was served at 6 p.m., then a cold supper was offered at 11 p.m.
A spectacular chandelier dominates the Royal Pavilion’s huge music room where the king’s grand piano was returned after being repurchased at auction this year. The music room was closed to the public for 11 years after a 1975 fire. However, just as restoration was being completed, a stone ball was dislodged from a minaret during a hurricane in 1987. The stone crashed through the ceiling and embedded in newly-installed carpet, forcing conservators to begin the renovation again.
Our group stayed three nights in Bath, a lovely city located in Somerset and filled with shops and restaurants; the distinctive, exclusive curved residences known as the Royal Crescent and the Circus; the Jane Austin Centre; the magnificent Bath Abbey and, of course, the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths.
We enjoyed afternoon tea, accompanied by a string trio, in the elegant Pump Room, adjacent to the historic baths which we toured earlier in the day. For this sophisticated repast, guests select sweet or savory treats and a tea of their choice.
Bath Abbey, renowned for its magnificent stained-glass windows and fan vaulted ceiling, currently has an outstanding installation created by artist Sue Symons. Known as the Bath Abbey Diptychs, the series depicts the life of Christ through panels of calligraphy and fabric art.
We also spent a day in the Cotswolds, a 600-square-mile area that boasts some of Britain’s most scenic vistas and quaint villages. We explored the villages of Castle Combe, Bibury, Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Campden on foot and drove through other small communities.
Motorcoaches are banned in Castle Combe, which has been dubbed “the prettiest village in England,” so tourists must disembark in the car park and walk down a steep, narrow road leading into the picturesque community. Castle Combe was a key shooting location for the film, “War Horse,” and was used for the TV series, “Downton Abbey.”
One of the first structures seen upon entering the village is the 14th-century market cross, where weekly markets were held. We toured the nearby St. Andrews Church, an Anglican building dating to the 13th- and 15th centuries.
Bibury is home to the Rack Isle, a National Trust site related historically to the woolen industry, and the Bibury Trout Farm. We spotted white swans and their fuzzy gray cygnets and a rare black swan swimming in the River Colne.
We had lunch in Stow-on-the-Wold, the highest town in the Cotswolds, and visited shops in the market square.
In Chipping Campden, we visited the Parish Church of St. James, browsed at shops and saw cow hides, sheep skins and other furs being sold at the market cross. Chipping Campden also has an Arts and Crafts Museum, in homage to the decorative arts created by designer and village native William Morris.
Our final stop that day was Broadway Tower, a stone “folly” where such notables as Morris and Mick Jagger have stayed. The tower, located at the highest point in the Cotswolds, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the countryside.
In addition, our group stayed several nights in London, where we toured St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London; saw Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Parliament and Elizabeth Tower (which houses the Big Ben clock); visited the observation deck of the Tate Modern art gallery; took walking tours and had a boat ride on the River Thames. We also toured Windsor Castle and the cathedrals of Winchester, Salisbury and Wells; visited Silbury Hill, a prehistoric chalk mound near Avebury; saw Stonehenge and spent a night in Southampton.